How do we move beyond platitudes and empty words in our response as a society to the systematic and widespread abuse of people with learning difficulties?
The BBC Panorama programme ‘Undercover Hospital Abuse Scandal’ shown on 22.05.19 shows devastating treatment of people with learning difficulties and a lack of respect for their human rights. The Position Statement below is PSC's response.
The issues documented in the programme in long-stay hospitals are recurring and therefore cannot only be attributed to an individual failure of care by a specific group of staff in a particular institution. They must be seen as reflecting a range of failures of health, education and social services throughout the lifespan of the person who needs support. Of course, those involved need to be held accountable for the horrific nature of their actions in accordance with the law. However, there is a pattern to the continued abuse of people with learning difficulties (*please scroll down for a discussion on language) that silences, marginalises and excludes them from vast sections of society and makes abuse more likely.
More children are being admitted to long-stay hospitals. This increase coincides with the government’s austerity agenda, where there has been a reduction of funding in real terms for social care and education. This equates to cuts in services, with families being unable to access respite support such as short breaks or community activities which meet the needs of children and young people with learning difficulties or autism. In the education system, the focus on a narrow range of academic educational outcomes, alongside less money, has led to a curriculum environment that cannot tolerate diversity in children’s approaches to learning, and staff who do not have the training and support to make sense of the behaviour of children whose needs may be harder to understand. Children with learning difficulties are being off-rolled or excluded if they cannot meet the behavioural expectations of the classroom. Such actions do not always lead to the child being able to access a more suitable placement.
Campaigns that raise awareness, normalise mental health difficulties and encourage people to tell their story enable the underlying sources of stigma to go unchallenged and the status quo to remain
In recent years, public conversation around mental health has been dominated by the topic of stigma, defined as “a strong feeling of disapproval that most people in a society have about something, especially when this is unfair”. Other than occasional mentions of underfunding of services, stigma is the primary focus of the media and of campaigning efforts by charities. In these contexts, stigma is usually framed as incidences such as strangers hurling verbal abuse or workplace bullying.
There is no doubt that these kinds of interactions happen and that they can be hurtful and traumatic. I have experienced this from the public I encounter in my job and also A&E staff during a mental health assessment. I have met people who use residential mental health services who have been verbally abused by the neighbours that live nearby.
However, I believe that this narrow focus on interpersonal stigma distracts from the underlying purveyors of stigma - mental health services and the medical model of distress. Before examining how these entities contribute to creating far more stigma than random bad eggs encountered out and about, we must first ask ourselves a question. Is this an intentional move, and if so who benefits and how?
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